Can Atheists Join Forces With Liberal Religious People to Battle Religious Extremism?
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Recently, there’s been a lot of talk in the organized atheist, humanist, skeptic and freethought movements about the potential benefits and drawbacks of interfaith work.
Over at Patheos, the Executive Director of the American Humanist Association, Roy Speckhardt, recently made an excellent case that while the terminology of “interfaith” may be problematic and there are several other important issues to grapple with, it is worth atheists’ while to get involved. At Friendly Atheist, Secular Student Alliance Communications Director Jesse Galef offered a long list of reasons atheists might participate, and how their involvement might improve some of the problems within the interfaith movement. Despite Galef and Speckhardt’s serious concerns and reservations, they have been actively involved in intentionally interfaith efforts, and I suspect their participation has informed their conclusions about the idea.
However, those speaking out against atheist involvement in the interfaith movement are, at the moment, a bit more numerous (just a couple of examples, with several others to follow). As far as I can tell based on what many atheists opposed to interfaith involvement state in their writing, a large percentage of them seem to have kept their distance from interfaith work. I understand their hesitation given the criticisms they offer, but I can’t help but wonder if there is some disconnect when those who criticize the interfaith movement the most also seem to have had little to no actual experience with it. I could be wrong, but I’d be surprised if someone who had been involved in interfaith work would suggest, as prominent atheist blogger P.Z. Myers did, that it “cheerfully and indiscriminately embrace[s] every faith without regard for content.”
Present in almost every atheist blog I’ve read opposed to interfaith work are perhaps the most common critiques I hear from my fellow atheists regarding interfaith work, and they’re directly related: that interfaith leaves no room for religious criticism, and that it by default excludes atheists because atheism isn’t a “faith.” Most atheists I know who reject the idea of participating in interfaith work do so in part because they assume that, in order to participate, everyone must bite his or her tongue and play nice, and that participation in this kind of movement lends our implicit approval to “faith” as a concept and rallying point.
I’d like to explain why I think these concerns may be somewhat overblown; how they might be combated where they exist, and the reality that they actually don’t apply to most situations.
Isn’t interfaith just a pro-religion ‘kumbaya’ club?
A recent expression of these concerns was made in a blog by Ronald A. Lindsay, president and CEO of the Center for Inquiry, an organization I have worked with a number of times (I recently accepted an invitation to join their Speakers’ Bureau) and whose “ Living Without Religion” campaign I greatly admire. In his blog, Lindsay wrote that “it’s nice that some politicians are finally willing to acknowledge our existence, but are we so desperate for acceptance that we’ll allow others to condescendingly misdescribe us as adherents of a faith? Sorry, but I can’t get too excited about being permitted to drink at the Whites Only fountain because we can ‘pass.’” I’ll set aside my distaste for the bizarre ( and far too common) parallel made between the atheist movement and the civil rights movement and address the meat of the argument: the fear that, in order to maintain the “ kumbaya” status quo, atheists need to keep quiet about their beliefs about religion.